If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Denmark Trip Day One

Pembrokeshire to Vorselaar, Belgium, 477 miles

A view I would see a lot of over the next few days.

I left home at 7 am, after packing everything the night before. I have to confess I was like a kid at Christmas. Sleep was hard to come by the night before. I had decided to wear my leather jacket and pants, in preference to my textile suit, and I had on a thermal layer, a t-shirt and a fleece underneath as I assumed that early September on a long bike trip would be cold. Wrong. The Pan has such good wind and weather protection, and the engine generates such amounts of heat, that by Reading services I was in the Gents', stripping down and taking off all but the outer layers. The leathers are very old now, made before the days of built-in armour, but look suitably worn and weathered, and I feel safe in them. The jacket stayed on me for the entire trip, but the pants were a mistake. I have put on a few pounds since I bought them, and they were uncomfortably tight, especially around the knees. That night, I took them off, stuffed them in a pannier, where they stayed, and wore my Kevlar jeans for the rest of the trip.

The journey, via the M4 and M25, was uneventful. I took plenty of rest stops, as I was aware that I still had 150 miles to cover on the far side before nightfall, but I still arrived at the Eurotunnel terminal early. The check-in system there is brilliant. I had booked online, and all I had to do was to insert the card I used for payment into a machine, choose which crossing I wanted to travel on (there was one within ten minutes of my arrival), collect a boarding pass, and get on the train. I love boats, and the ferry crossing is normally a major part of the holiday, but for sheer convenience the Tunnel is hard to beat.

I arrived at the end of the bike lane to find another bike already there. It was a new BMW 1200 Adventure – the one made popular by Charlie and Ewan and their TV programmes "A Long Way From Anywhere Completely Alone With Only A Back-up Truck, Film Crew, Two Make-up Girls And A Celebrity Hairdresser" – complete with full Touratech hard luggage, the kind that looks like metal boxes built to survive an earthquake. Probably about £13,000 worth, all in all. I got off and said hello, and was rewarded with a blank stare from the rider and complete disinterest from his passenger, a slim, blonde of about 25. Now, I know from my researches on the A40 (my daily comute) that Adventure riders rarely wave to other bikers, so this didn't surprise me. The only words we exchanged were when we had loaded onto the train and he complained about my parking. He spent the journey either looking at his mobile or chatting to the girl. It was obviously a 'new' thing, as they were still asking each other about obvious stuff like tastes in food, and he was telling her all about his bike and what they were going to be doing on the trip. I guessed that this was their first holiday together, and her first on a bike. He was languid and confident, she was pretty and adoring, and when I saw the City of Westminster parking permit behind his windscreen I understood. The immaculate, dirt-free GS confirmed my suspicions: 'something in the City', fair-weather biker, used to getting his own way, money to burn, chick to impress. We didn't speak again.

From the Eurotunnel terminal you are decanted straight onto the autoroute, which is very convenient if a little soulless (where are the gendarmes, the douaniers, the little café where you can buy your first coffee and croque monsieur of the holiday?). I stopped to fill the tank and then cracked on.

Couldn't be anywhere but Northern France.

I followed the autoroute past Calais and into Belgium. Near Antwerp, as it was getting dark, the satnav took me off the main road and onto some very pleasant side roads. A friend had recommended a "quiet" campsite near the village of Vorselaar, and I had put the co-ordinates into my TomTom, as the position of the site in terms of my overall journey was ideal. Strangely, the TomTom took me to what looked like a council estate in the village, so I stopped and had a look around. I had studied the area using Google Maps before I left, and from my memory of the layout I found the actual site about a mile away down a forest road. I rolled onto the forecourt and started looking for signs of life. There were none. There were no tents in sight, only a number of tatty touring caravans with flower beds and satellite dishes (always a bad sign), and I wondered if the site was closed for the winter. But it was getting late, so I left the bike and had a wander round to see if I could find someone to speak to.

Superficially pleasant ...

Eventually, an old woman came out of a door and spoke loudly to me in a language I didn't understand. Now, my friend had warned me that the site owner was a monoglot Flemish speaker, but friendly enough, so I did my best. "Bonjour, parlez-vous français?" She shrugged. That was obviously not the correct choice, politically. "Do you speak English?" Another shrug. A final shot in the dark: "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" (This was a truly wild last-ditch thing, as my knowledge of German is tiny.) She replied with another barrage of gargling and hawking, which I interpreted to mean that she did not speak any of these languages, and that if I wanted anything I would have to try harder.

I tried sign-language. I pointed at my chest: "One person." I made a steeple with my arms: "One small tent." I pointed one finger upwards: "One night. OK?"

She ignored me and went indoors. I was about to give up and leave when a man of about my age (probably her son) came out. He had a toothbrush moustache and a sinister smile (thinking of Marc Dutroux and Belgium's developing reputation for unhealthy sexual interests), but he was smiling, at least, and we had a very stilted and unsatisfactory conversation in Frangleutch, during which he appeared to agree that I could stay, provided that I did all the necessary paperwork. They checked my passport in great detail (son, mother and - I assume - father too, all had a good look), accepted my offering of 10 Euros, and the deal was done. The old lady, still silent but now at least nominally co-operative, showed me to my spot and left.

(In retrospect, I think I may have been a little unfair here. It really was in the middle of nowhere, and my appearance (six foot, a hundred kilos, and covered in black leather) may not have counted in my favour. In the middle of the gentle Belgian countryside, at that time of night, I must have looked to the like an invading Visigoth with toothache and a personality disorder.)

I was allotted a small square of grass, next to the road by the main gates, surrounded by tatty caravans and even tattier white vans. It did not look good. A small, wiry man came out of one of the caravans and spoke to me as I was putting the tent up. He didn't speak English, but we managed with my basic German. He was Polish, and part of a team of builders who were contracted to renovate a nearby church. He admired the bike and told me about his Yamaha Virago back in Poland. We made brum-brum noises with our arms in the air (this is international biker-speak for "cruiser") and laughed a lot. He showed me where the showers and toilets were and even gave me a token for the showers (and wouldn't accept anything for it). I was very grateful for this, as my 10 Euros apparently did not buy me access to the facilities as far as Madame was concerned. Then his mates came back in another van, the beers were cracked, and they went indoors. His last words to me were: "You want anything – (mimes knocking on door) – you ask for Janusch!"

I have to confess to a moment of slight shame. On seeing the caravans and the tatty vehicles, and then learning I was surrounded by migrant workers, I was disappointed and a little apprehensive, with thoughts of noise all night and having to carry all my valuables with me everywhere I went. And yet the guy couldn't have been kinder, and there was no trouble at all. The only fly in the ointment was when they left for work at 4.30 am, with a lot of slamming doors and roaring engines, which woke me up just as I had drifted off to sleep after an uncomfortable night. But I was reminded (and shouldn't have needed to be) that people are just people, wherever you go, and fear and apprehension are usually the result of ignorance, easily dispelled by contact and conversation.

I woke around 9 am, had a quick brew, and set off for Denmark. I couldn't be bothered having a shower, so I left the token balanced on his caravan door. I hope he understood.

Belgium is pretty, in a quiet sort of way. Like Holland, without the excitement.

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